Yagil Levy
Haaretz (Opinion)
November 8, 2011 - 1:00am

Is there a connection between the warning of the outgoing Judea and Samaria Division commander, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon - who said a "radical minority, marginal in quantity but not in influence, is liable to bring about extensive escalation through what are called 'price tag' acts but reach the level of terrorism" - and the separation of women at the army's Simhat Torah celebrations?

At first glance, these seem to be two separate incidents, but they have a common denominator: the struggle for control of the Israel Defense Forces. These incidents represent the loss of the army's freedom of action, as an arm of the state, when it comes to religious groups.

The 2005 Talia Sasson report on illegal outposts presented a clear picture of military forces renouncing their duty to impose law and order on West Bank settlers, not just Palestinians, which led to the growth of illegal outposts.

The report describes how soldiers turned a blind eye to illegal activity and even secretly cooperated with settlers and leaked them information; some officers lived in the outposts.

The army's clear preference for the settlements was bolstered by the identity of the soldiers deployed in the West Bank. The IDF units serving in the settlements were largely made up of settlers and other religious men, and the IDF also armed some of the local security teams protecting the settlements. Thus the social boundaries between the settlers and the IDF units were blurred.

Since the army has attempted to change the rules of the game and loosen the settlers' grip on military conduct, because of the government's political obligations, "price tag" revenge attacks on Palestinians have become the response of those who are unwilling to accept the new rules. That's what Alon was complaining about as his army career was coming to an end.

In fact, there is no better evidence of the undermining of the IDF's control over its forces in the West Bank than an order Alon had issued to restrict information about the army's plans to enforce order in the West Bank - out of a well-founded suspicion that the information was being leaked to the settlers to confound the orders of the top brass.

This is in addition to the soldiers' protests and threats to refuse to carry out their orders that already hinder the army.

The Simhat Torah incident, in which female soldiers were sent to an area about 50 meters away from the post-holiday hakafot shniyot dancing - even though they were already dancing separately from the men, in accordance with Orthodox practice - paints a similar picture.

In that case, the heads of the religious pre-military academies and the hesder yeshivas, which combine army service with Torah study, were making a concerted effort - in conjunction with the IDF rabbinate - to create a theocratic military culture.

This can be seen in the brass' exclusion of female soldiers from the IDF's public spaces and its combat units. Since the 1990s, the senior command has been operating on the assumption that it is dependent on the religious establishment to provide it with high-quality personnel to fill the combat units. This feeling of dependence is exploited by the religious establishment to help it improve its bargaining position.

There is even more that links Alon's reprimand with the Simhat Torah incident. Deterring the army from evacuating settlements in the future and maintaining an informal cooperation in the field require a significant amount of religious recruits in the units deployed in the West Bank. Thus does the religious Zionist establishment make an effort to resolve the apparent contradiction between army service and Jewish law, which would otherwise serve to encourage the religious not to serve or would isolate them in separate Haredi units.

The exclusion of women is an important part of this process.

Even if there is no overt, explicit agenda, many religious Zionist leaders think that a critical mass of religious soldiers in combat units weakens the IDF's ability to evacuate settlements, to judge by the way the army was deployed to evacuate the Gaza Strip settlements in 2005, because those soldiers constitute the inner circle of the units that come into direct contact with the settlers.

And even if that secret agenda is not explicitly tied to the exclusion of women, that exclusion nonetheless serves the agenda. There is, then, a fight over control of the army, one that goes far beyond a single incident that took place on Simhat Torah or a single speech warning of a radical minority.


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